• Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s assistant Mike Phelan was part of the United team which beat Barca in the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup
• But there are less positive memories from the two most recent clashes with the Spanish club — a 2-0 defeat in the 2009 final and a 3-1 reverse in the 2011 decider when Pep Guardiola’s former side again dominated
There are instances in a club’s history that can transform the mood and break barriers and as Manchester United prepare to face Barcelona in Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final, the class of 2019 were reminded about one such breakthrough moment.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s assistant Mike Phelan was part of the United team which beat Barca in the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup — ending a 23-year wait for a second European title after their famous European Cup win in 1968.
It was just the second trophy won by manager Alex Ferguson at United following the FA Cup triumph the previous season and the biggest prize since their last English league title in 1967. In beating the Spanish giants in Rotterdam, thanks to two goals from Welsh striker Mark Hughes, United were suddenly back in the big time.
“It was a great occasion, the excitement and preparation that went into that as a player and then getting over to Rotterdam and preparing to play what were the favourites at that time, Barcelona with Johann Cruyff as manager,” Phelan told Reuters in an interview.
Barca had the great Dutch defensive midfielder Ronald Koeman and the brilliant Danish forward Michael Laudrup, to compliment their Spanish core, including striker Julio Salinas.
But United, overwhelmingly English with a sprinkling of Welsh, Irish and Scottish talent, triumphed thanks to the goals of the former Barca striker Hughes.
“The game is like a blip but it is the time before and after the game that I remember,” says Phelan who recalls the massive following of United fans in the Dutch city and the strong characters in Ferguson’s dressing room.
The likes of Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince, Clayton Blackmore and Brian McClair made up a team that was the true start of the Ferguson era.
“We knew we had created another moment in history for the club – it was terrific. It was also a push towards better things – it gave us a hunger to know that we could compete again at that level and we definitely moved into another territory where we continually won things,” he said.
Indeed, United were soon dominating English football and that success was to bring them up against Barca again in European competition. Phelan was on the coaching staff in 2008, when United won a cagey, tactical two-legged Champions League semi-final encounter with Barca thanks to a wonderful strike from distance by Paul Scholes in the second leg at Old Trafford.
That set up the victory over Chelsea, on penalties, in the final in Moscow, as United won their second Champions League under Ferguson, following their memorable 1999 triumph against Bayern Munich — at Barca’s Nou Camp stadium.
But there are less positive memories from the two most recent clashes with the Spanish club — a 2-0 defeat in the 2009 final and a 3-1 reverse in the 2011 decider when Pep Guardiola’s former side again dominated.
“I think they were the best team in football at that time and led by an extremely good, up and coming coach, who has gone on to do even better,” said Phelan. “We were well beat, we had to take that on the chin. You try to be competitive – but our best wasn’t good enough,” he added.
Barca are again favourites to reach the last four but Solksjaer’s side have already shown, in the previous round, that they can overcome the odds. United came back from 2-0 down to beat Paris St Germain after the first-leg to go through with a thrilling 3-1 win in the French capital and Phelan knows the team will have to repeat many of the qualities they showed in that game.
“We felt if anyone could do it — Manchester United could. The players embraced the whole thing. It was a real good feeling after the game, to know that the belief was there and that Manchester United can still create these moments,” said Phelan. “We got the reaction from the fans and the media which was great – it has gone down as a great night in football. Hopefully we can bottle it. With Ole and this new mindset we can produce some terrific performances.”
Standing in their way is Lionel Messi a goalscorer in both those lost finals.
“He is now more mature than he has ever been and he is still doing the things that he is really good at,” said Phelan. “At that time he was part of a good group of players, I think now it is a little bit different in that he is more of an individual player for Barcelona, the stand-out player, whereas 10 years ago he was in there with Iniesta and Xavi and these types of players, who were exceptionally talented players. They just took football to a new level, a different dimension, extremely efficient and clinical but they had a maestro at the heart of it — when he turns up he is good enough to win a game on his own.”